4 October 2016

Speak Up

J. Curwen & Sons 1898


We can tell a lot from the way people speak. The voice influences our perception of those who talk to us, and assumptions are established almost as soon as a mouth is opened. It would be nice to think that this is much less the case in our apparently classless times, but when this book was published, how you spoke was how you were judged.
The back end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th gave birth to a number of health fads, from John Kellog’s diets of nuts and yoghurt enemas to CorneliusHarness’s electrical corsets and much else besides. Almost every function of the human body had some movement or guru offering to improve it. Vocal culture, with its incorporation of aspects of the physical culture movement, was obsessively concerned about the deterioration and neglect of the voice.
The Behnke family dedicated their lives to improving people’s voices and, by extension, their respiratory health. Emil Behnke was a singing teacher who lectured on vocal physiology at John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa College in Regent Street, London – where Sarah Ann Glover's Sol-fa singing system was developed into the Doh re me scale. He also distinguished himself by becoming the first (and perhaps only) person to photograph the larynx in action. His wife Kate was an actress who took a keen interest in voice training, which culminated in this book. And their daughter Kate Emil Behnke carried on the family interest and published several books for singers and public speakers well into the 1940s.
The basis of Mrs Behnke’s book is that even the dullest voice can be made more melodious by undertaking a course of physical exercises of the mouth, chest and whole body. The benefits of such an improvement were obvious to politicians, clergymen, actors and opera singers. But she was also convinced that her recommendations could have a civilizing effect on wider society. Like Professor Henry Higgins, she believed that even the most ragged slum dweller could learn to lose ‘the detestable vowel pronunciation of lower-class London’. Not only that, but whole nations could be improved in their speech by a few simple exercises; the ‘peculiar nasal accent’ of the American, for example, was due solely to the ‘wrong position of the tongue, lips and back of the mouth’.

Being a practical handbook for its contemporary readership, this is one of those pieces of ephemera that can’t help but offer vivid little immersions into its times. At one point urban Board school teachers are advised to try the exercises so that they can make themselves clearly understood above the noise of other classes being taught in the same room. They also have to compete against the din of the traffic outside their classrooms which ‘must be endured until the happy day when rubber-tyred motor-cars replace the clattering of horses’ hooves and the rattle of iron band wheels’.
But the Behnke’s methods clearly did have some genuinely beneficial effects; their books continued to sell well over the decades and changed hands frequently after they were out of print. Like so many secondhand books, this copy carries evidence of previous owners. After its appearance in the bookshops in 1898, it was owned by someone called Chas Smith in 1904. Either before or after that, a blind stamp on the endpaper shows that it was held at the Manse of Kildalton on the Isle of Islay. And, before I found it in a charity shop in Dalston, it was the property of an actor called Christopher Molloy at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, who put his name to it in 1999.

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